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The Story Behind the Poem: "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks"

In I Was the Jukebox, I set out with the goal of writing away from the biographical self. These poems speak as sand, as orchids, as Egyptian gods. In “You Were You,” which yields the collection’s title phrase, the speaker’s displaced self becomes a barroom jukebox. Her beloved shares the bar—with his new flame in tow.

“Another Failed Poem About the Greeks” is another tale of thwarted love, with a dividing wall of centuries rather than plastic and glitter. One day I got an image stuck in my head: a gleaming warrior dragging a bloodied Gorgon’s head behind him. He was standing not in a scene out of Clash of the Titans but on a suburban front stoop, waiting for his blind date to answer the door. I wanted to write the poem that could own that moment, and play out its consequences. 

 Click here to see a full text and to hear me read "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks."

 This is one of a trio of “failed” poems in I Was the Jukebox, alongside “Another Failed Poem about Music” and “Another Failed Poem about Starlings.” I was writing after a long, fallow period, when the blank page had become an intimidating thing. At first I labeled this poem a failure simply as a way of securing freedom from expectation.

As I continued to write “Failed Poems” (those that made it into this book and those that did not), I realized the phrase also commented on the anxiety that surrounds invoking any well-worn motif. Does the world really need another poem about birds? Another retelling of myth? Like many, I’ve heeded Ezra Pound‘s prescription to “make it new.” Like many, I sometimes struggle to reconcile this command with poems of love, or confession, or ekphrasis, themes that feel as familiar as they do necessary.

The key has to be in Pound’s choice of verb. It may be impossible to find anything new under the sun these days, unless you have access to virgin rain forest or deep-sea expeditions. Our job, instead, is to make it new. Which, in I Was the Jukebox, takes the form of restless ventriloquism: assigning a human voice—intimate, vulnerable—to a series of surreal bodies and unlikely scenarios. 
 
First posted at W. W. Norton's Poems Out Loud blog. Interested in more stories "Behind the Poem"? Check out W. W. Norton's archive here